'[Nara's paintings] evoke the immediacy of children's feelings that his grownup audience had long forgotten but that were nevertheless preserved in the recesses of their minds. These feelings in turn gave them the strength to accept their own solitude and to understand life as an inextricable mixture of loss and hope'
('A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog' in S. Trescher et al., Yoshitomo Nara: Lullaby Supermarket, Munich 2001, p. 15).
'A child's feeling of sadness when left alone, an adolescent's awkwardness growing up, and the resulting uneasiness connecting with the outside world [feelings that are] universally understood by audiences of all ages'
(M. Chiu et al. (eds.), Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody's Fool, New York 2010, p. 23).
Executed in 1999, Missing in Action is an exceptional example of Yoshitomo Nara's most iconic subject: the single, solitary child. One of the first larger than life works to be realised on canvas, it is rendered with the artist's renowned smooth and definite contours. The little girl who appears at the centre of the otherwise empty composition is dressed in scarlet, like a sugary bon-bon or the red sun of the Japanese Nisshoki flag. The hem of her dress is billowed out into a bell shape whilst the white neckline neatly meets her bulbous head. Her broad face and high forehead is crowned with a thick, black, asymmetric crop of hair yet it casts no shadow over her fully illuminated face. Her eyes, shaped like segments of a tangerine, stare out at the viewer with an air of mischief, her lips pursed in an allusive smirk. Nara's little girl is alone but defiant, anchored to the ground by some resolution or incapable of moving her small stubby feet. She triggers a confusing array of emotions from her viewers: at first the protective instinct of an adult and then the surprise of encountering a giant child whose head eclipses our own. As Stephan Trescher has suggested 'Nara's roly-poly children balance on the razor's edge: they are cute embodiments of infantilism in their chubby-cheeked plumpness. They are the incarnated cry for baby food and love - but at the same time true individuals who will not be defeated, quiet carriers of hope' ('A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog' in S. Trescher et al., Yoshitomo Nara: Lullaby Supermarket, Munich 2001, p. 15).
Nara began drawing in the 1980s, at first favouring a loose style of painting. This approach transformed in the 1990s, when he began to eliminate all extraneous elements from the background of his paintings in order to focus on the emotional life of his figures. Missing in Action coincides with Nara's relatively secluded but artistically fruitful time in Germany, where he studied for a Masters degree in Fine Art at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, returning to Japan in 2000. At this time, Nara was investigating various psychological states including 'a child's feeling of sadness when left alone, an adolescent's awkwardness growing up, and the resulting uneasiness connecting with the outside world [feelings that are] universally understood by audiences of all ages' (M. Chiu et al. (eds.), Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody's Fool, New York 2010, p. 23).
His drawings from this period have considerable emotive power. They have been considered a 'symbolic representation of the dominant feelings of Japanese youth in the late 1990s and early 2000s, chracterised by a sense of uncertainty about the future, vulnerability, and a yearning for the innocence preserved in the inner child' (Midori Matsui, 'Art for Myself and Others: Yoshitomo Nara's Popular Imagination', M. Chiu et al. (eds.), op. cit., p. 13). In Missing in Action, Nara's title and composition captures perfectly the contemporary zeitgeist, and the sense of disillusionment of the Japanese youth in the years following the Great Kansai Earthquake and the Subway Gas Attack in 1995. His solitary little girl is imbued with a sense of punk rebellion that was aroused at the time, with her narrowed gaze, clenched fists and determined expression of resistance. For Nara, punk is 'not a question of the outfit with spikey hair, safety pins and dog collars', but a subculture that embodies the 'rejection of conformity' by the Japanese youth (S. Trescher, 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog', in op. cit., p. 105). In this respect, Nara's approach bears resemblance to that of American artist Mike Kelley who is himself, a lifelong devotee of the Detroit punk scene. Kelley's work adopts a similar if abm, childlike aesthetic to meditate on the acute imperfections within society.
Nara, along with fellow artist Takashi Murakami, represents part of a new wave of Pop in Japanese art that has fundamentally challenged the tradition of figurative painting. Whereas Murakami's works reconsider traditional values and Japanese talismans within the postmodern trope of Manga and anime, Nara's methods are strikingly different. As the artist has asserted, 'I don't dislike manga, but I'm not interested in it, and I don't watch animé at all.' (Yoshitomo Nara interview with Melissa Chiu, 'A Conversation with the Artist', M. Chiu et al. (eds.), op. cit., p. 175). Instead his works take influence from drawings in European and Japanese children's books such as Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, or the illustrations of Japanese painter, Takeshi Motai in the 1940s and 1950s. Nara's procedure itself has something obsessive yet meditative about it, indeed 'what he paints always remains more or less the samethe artist paints faces, face and faces again. Gradually, slight alterations set in, circular eyes become crooked, menacingly squeezed thin; aviator caps mutate into animal ears, pointed caps turn into the chickpea shape of a face. Surfaces change from smooth to rough and back again, the colours from bright and colourful to milky, pale colourations - and it always remains a Nara face' (S. Trescher, 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog', op. cit., p. 15).
Missing in Action is a beautifully rendered painting from the height of Nara's drawing practice. It assembles fragments of childhood memory, cultural images, punk music and elements of contemporary life to create an emotive picture that arouses the imagination and empathy of the viewer. As Matsui has highlighted, his paintings 'evoke the immediacy of children's feelings that his grown-up audience had long forgotten but that were nevertheless preserved in the recesses of their minds. These feelings in turn gave them the strength to accept their own solitude and to understand life as an inextricable mixture of loss and hope (op. cit., p. 15). KA